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The second round of the UAAP Season 80 men’s basketball tournament is underway, and two of the top teams in the running for the championship are renewing their intense rivalry.
Save for Season 79 when the De La Salle Green Archers and the Ateneo Blue Eagles met in the finals, heated competition between the two teams cooled down a bit. In their last finals matchup, La Salle overwhelmed and swept an Ateneo squad that wasn’t even supposed to be there.
In the post-Kiefer Ravena era, Ateneo was supposed to be on rebuilding mode; on a system upgrade where the team’s young core is given time to develop. But the kids in blue and white didn’t need time.
Led by Ravena’s younger brother, Thirdy, the team immediately flourished under the disciplined approach of veteran coach Tab Baldwin. This season, Ateneo—as the only team with an unblemished win-loss record—is all out to bring back to championship trophy to Katipunan. La Salle is the team standing on their way.
After the long Ben Mbala wait was over, the Green Archers regained championship form last year with a brand of basketball advertised as “Mayhem.” Under new coach Aldin Ayo, La Salle showed a new, fast-paced style of play that hounded opponents on defense and wreaked havoc on offense. Despite losing Finals MVP Jeron Teng this year, La Salle remained heavy favorites to repeat in dominating fashion in Season 80.
Then Sunday happened.
Scheduled as the last game of the first round, the game between La Salle and Ateneo did more than test the respective teams’ strengths and weaknesses—it may have also breathed new life to a dormant rivalry.
Ateneo came into the big game with a 6-0 record, something that was expected from the powerhouse La Salle squad. But thanks to a historic 16 three-pointer output from the UP Fighting Maroons, the defending champs in green and white could only muster a 5-1 record.
From the opening tip, Ateneo came out firing, led by the precise shooting of Anton Asistio. The Blue Eagles led 28-16 to end the first quarter, and continued to build on the lead, hitting open shots and finding ways to solve “Mayhem” through discipline.
The Blue Eagles led by as much as 15 points, but the Green Archers slowly chipped away at the lead, eventually catching up in the fourth quarter.
It all came down to the final 7.8 seconds of the game, La Salle the ball and up a point, 75-74. Kib Montalbo, who was not having one of his best games, threw an erroneous inbounds pass that was tipped and stolen by Ateneo’s Matt Nieto. Nieto was fouled and sent to the line for pressure-packed free throws with 3.9 seconds left.
Nieto calmly sank the two shots to give Ateneo a 76-75 lead. La Salle wouldn’t score on its final possession as several white shirts clamped down on Mbala.
The La Salle-Ateneo games are always hyped up to be the most exciting and can’t-miss games of any UAAP season. With one young, hungry team finding their groove under a new system and another champion team finding new ways to win without their King Archer, the rivalry lived up to the hype (again) last Sunday. Season 80 is still a long way to go, but if the first round was any indication, then fans of both schools may have something great to look forward to come Final Four.
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